By Memorial Day in 1970, the Minnesota North Stars had wound down their operations in Waterloo, wrapping up the community’s only season as a farm team for an NHL club.
Fifty years ago, Cedar Valley hockey fans were breaking out their black and red gear once again, following a one-year experiment which brought Iowa the highest caliber of hockey the state had ever seen up to that time.
After five consecutive USHL championships in the 1960’s, the Black Hawks had made the sport a sensation in the Cedar Valley. But with the United States Hockey League faltering, hockey was on the verge of disappearing from the community. The fledgling North Stars appeared as saviors. In 1968/69, their minor league affiliate, the Memphis South Stars, lost $200,000. McElroy Auditorium, just a few hours drive from the Met Center in Bloomington and home to thousands of passionate hockey fans, must have seemed an ideal spot for Minnesota to develop prospects. For many fans, cheering for the North Stars’ top farm team must have seemed like an easy conversion.
The “Iowa Stars” moved into Waterloo for the 1969/70 Central Hockey League season. At that time, the CHL was made up of seven clubs and stretched from Texas, through Oklahoma and Missouri, north to Nebraska and Iowa. Fort Worth was the farthest destination from Waterloo, over 800 miles away. Chicago, Detroit, Boston, St. Louis, New York, and Toronto had affiliates in the league, with each team playing a 72-game schedule.
Waterloo was the smallest city in the league, but at the outset, North Stars officials said they believed that was a good thing.
According to Minnesota president Walter Bush Jr., “The smaller size of this metropolitan area can be a plus, not a minus…it seems to us that it gives the organization and players a better chance to become part of the community.”
John Muckler was the North Stars choice to manage the operation. He had become part of the Minnesota franchise after working as a player-coach, then later general manager in the Eastern Hockey League, a level similar to the old USHL. When the North Stars joined the NHL as an expansion team in 1967, Muckler was brought in to lead the South Stars front office in Memphis and later moved with the club to the Cedar Valley. After Waterloo, he would spend another decade in the minors before landing in the NHL as an assistant coach with the Edmonton Oilers. Muckler won five Stanley Cups there in various roles, then moved on to work for the Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers, and Ottawa Senators as either head coach or general manager.
Muckler’s partner in Memphis and Waterloo was Head Coach Parker MacDonald. In the early 1950’s, MacDonald arrived in the NHL as a forward with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He would end up eventually playing for four of the NHL’s original six teams, having a career year in 1962/63 on a line with Gordie Howe. Minnesota selected him in the 1967 expansion draft, and transitioned him into a coaching role after a full season with the North Stars. Like Muckler, MacDonald would eventually climb into a head coaching role in the show with both Minnesota and the Los Angeles Kings.
Muckler and MacDonald enjoyed a successful debut at McElroy Auditorium in the Stars’ first game on October 11, 1969. Jim Benzelock, one of only six Iowa Stars to never play in the NHL, scored the team’s first goal 4:12 into the game. The Stars took their first lead on a Mike Chernoff score 12:33 into the second. Grant Erickson delivered the game-winner with 1:51 remaining, and Iowa held on for a 4-3 win against the Omaha Knights, an affiliate of the New York Rangers. A crowd of 3,192 piled into McElroy to see the game.
Although he didn’t play, former Waterloo Black Hawk star goalie Jim Coyle dressed for the inaugural game, because Minnesota had only sent one net-minder to Iowa at that point. Twenty-year-old Gilles Gilbert was in net for 34 saves in the Stars first game. He would be the club’s regular goalie throughout the season, stacking up a 17-16-5 record in 39 appearances. Gilbert was also the Stars’ player who would go on to perhaps the most notable NHL career, winning 192 games in parts of 14 big-league seasons. As a member of Boston Bruins, he was an NHL All-Star in 1974, picking up a career-high 34 wins that season, and back-stopping Boston to the Stanley Cup finals. He was also along for the ride in 1978 and 1979 when the Bruins returned to the championship series.
Gilbert’s roommate in Waterloo was Minnesota’s hottest prospect at that time. Dick Redmond was the North Star’s first round draft choice in 1969. The previous year for St. Catherine’s in the Ontario Hockey Association, he had racked up 74 points, the most by a defenseman in that league since Bobby Orr. Redmond didn’t mature into another Orr, but he did enjoy a solid NHL career, first appearing with the North Stars the same year he was in Waterloo. He would also play for the California Golden Seals, Chicago Blackhawks, Atlanta Flames, St. Louis Blues, and ended up as Gilbert’s teammate again in Boston in time for the Bruins trip to the 1979 Stanley Cup finals.
Nineteen other members of the Iowa Stars played in the NHL at some point. Of the six who didn’t make it, three played in the World Hockey Association, the rival league in the 1970’s which attracted Stars like Howe and Bobby Hull near the end of their careers. When the circuit folded at the end of the decade, the remnant of the WHA was absorbed into the National Hockey League, much like the AFL into the NFL.
* * *
The victory in the season-opener was not a fluke. Waterloo Courier Sports Editor Russ Smith dubbed the Stars the “rollicking, brawling, bad boys of the Central Hockey League,” and the roughhousing style led to wins. The Stars stayed in the midst of a tight playoff race which went down to the final weekend of the season. With two games remaining, Iowa was two points behind Omaha and Tulsa with home games scheduled against Fort Worth and Oklahoma City.
Friday, March 22, 1970 it looked like the Stars would pick up a vital win against the Fort Worth Wings at McElroy. With a 3-2 lead in the closing minutes, Mike Chernoff appeared to seal the game with an empty net goal, but the play was called back because it had been set up by a two-line offside pass. The linesman who made the call was former Black Hawk Dave Swick.
The Wings scored the game-tying goal, and the contest finished in a 3-3 tie, effectively ending Iowa’s chance for a regular season title. It took 15 minutes for Swick and the other officials to make it off the ice with debris from the stands raining down on them. Threatening phone calls, including suggestions that angry fans might bomb his house, convinced Swick to ask for police protection. It wouldn’t be the last ugly ending for the Stars.
The club did win their final regular season game for a second place finish in the league. Chernoff, who would play in just one career NHL game, notched a goal and an assist to finish in a tie for the team scoring lead with captain Bill Orban, who had been temporarily called up to Minnesota. Both men ended up with 75 points. Other notable achievements belonged to Danny Seguin, who won most popular player voting among Waterloo fans. Dennis O’Brien finished as the CHL’s penalty minute leader with 331 in 72 games.
The Stars began their first playoff series later that week against Toronto’s affiliate, the Tulsa Oilers, and advanced in six games. The Jack Adams Cup championship series opened against Omaha on April 8th with a 6-2 loss. Iowa rallied for a 3-1 win in Game Two, but the next three games were scheduled in Omaha. The Knights picked up a 4-2 victory, then a 7-6 overtime decision, which came in spite of a Chernoff hat trick.
Down three games to one in the best-of-seven series, Chernoff turned in another big play, giving Iowa a 5-4 lead midway through the third period of Game Five. As had been the case for Chernoff weeks earlier against Fort Worth and the night before in Omaha, the effort wasn’t enough. The Knights scored three unanswered goals, two by future NHL journeyman Bert Wilson, to win the game and the series. For finishing second in the regular season and as runners-up in the playoffs, Iowa Stars players received $1,400 each, the equivalent of approximately $8,000 today. Winning the regular season title and the Adams Cup would have been worth another $400 per man.
Neither championship would have been enough to keep the Stars in Waterloo, however.
During 1969-1970, an average of 2,100 fans filed into McElroy Auditorium for each game. The Waterloo Courier estimated that total attendance for the season was more than the total population of the city and suggested that few other communities with a professional hockey team could boast about similar success. Unfortunately for the Stars, their attendance was still last in the Central Hockey League. The club made approximately $163,000 from ticket sales, well short of the $200,000 the North Stars had estimated in their budget. On the whole, the franchise lost $130,000 to $150,000.
A clue about one unrealized expectation may have been right in the team name: the Iowa Stars. The franchise believed fans from across eastern Iowa, if not an even broader portion of the state, would be drawn to the action. A letter published in the Stars’ game program from Cedar Rapids Gazette Sports Editor Gus Schrader predicted fans would “flock” up the Cedar River corridor.
Schrader wrote, “Certainly at least half the fans who see the Iowa Stars play this season will be from cities, towns, and rural areas outside the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metropolitan area… Waterloo merchants are going to be pleased if the fans develop the habit of coming to Waterloo.”
The estimate was optimistic, and Iowa Stars hockey was not as habit-forming as hoped. The North Stars moved their top farm team to Cleveland before the fall of 1970, with a commitment from the private ownership there to share expenses. On the same day that decision was announced, Northeast Iowa Sports, the organization overseeing Iowa Stars operations, went to work to revive the Black Hawks.
The effort brought back a number of ex-Hawks. Coyle, Swick, John Lesyshen, and many others never really left the community. Jack Barzee, Paul Johnson, Jim Smith, and players who had continued to skate elsewhere brought their equipment back to Waterloo. The reborn 1970/71 Black Hawks finished second in the USHL. They would win three league titles (two in the playoffs, one in the regular season) during the 1970’s.
Prior to the Iowa Stars single winter, North Stars President Walter Bush said, “The caliber of people with whom we have dealt in this area was one of the overriding factors that brought us to Waterloo. We think a great deal of the energies and abilities of these men who worked so long and hard to bring the Stars into existence. It would come as no surprise to me if they help make this region into hockey’s answer to Green Bay.”
Although Bush’s remark was not borne out with the Stars, the comparison fits to some degree with the Black Hawks. A mythically successful past, followed by decades with a struggling franchise, and eventually, a brilliant resurgence could describe the timeline for Green Bay Packers or Waterloo Black Hawks history. Although the numbers are much different, the passion of fans for the Black Hawks and Packers is unquestioned, right down to the tailgating. Minnesota executives were even correct about hockey spreading beyond the Cedar Valley to much or northern Iowa, just not patient enough to enjoy the benefits.
Although there must have been many people disappointed when professional hockey didn’t stick in Waterloo, the end result has certainly been a blessing for many young players, coaches, and generations of Black Hawks fans.